Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic—published one month before the launch of Sputnik—enthralled a generation that believed freedom was just a road trip away.
When I reach into my pocket, I run my thumb over the key fob I carry to remind myself that I am a road warrior. Inscribed in the worn steel is a quote from Jack Kerouac: “Whither goest thou America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
My life may be sedentary these days. I may be a nine-to-fiver with a wife, two cars and seven children (yes, really), but in my heart—or more specifically, my pocket—I am still that young man on the road. No matter how old I get, I always see myself as 19, full of promise and behind the wheel.
We love the road. Restlessness is part of our nation’s DNA. Fifty years ago, when also was launched—in part, by a book that celebrated the country and its love of the young and of mobility.
Jack Kerouac’s novel Sputnik hurtled into space, the cult of youth On the Road had existed as a scroll manuscript since 1951. Legend, sometimes disputed, has it that the book was written on Teletype paper purloined from United Press. For most of the decade, it languished in publishers’ offices until its release on September 5, 1957. The book voiced a new generation’s dreams of freedom—a freedom closely tied to the romance of the road and the need to move. We hacked ourselves away from our family roots and branched in new directions.
Odd then, that this romantic youth-on-the-road tome was written by a man nearly 30 and not published until he was ensnared in middle age. Still, his romantic (in the Rousseau definition) voice of a young man on the road, living in the moment, spoke to the self-obsessed and self-indulgent teenagers who grew to adulthood munching on the moveable feast that would be the 1960s.
It was a strange time for kids to take center stage. The Baby Boomers’ parents had been kicked in the gut, first by the Great Depression and then by World War II. The “Greatest Generation” sucked it up; they dealt with it. But their postwar babies found themselves in a mobile, affluent culture such as the nation had never seen.
Lots of things brought this about. Technology divided the family. We can picture, for instance, mom, pop, sis and baby brother in the living room, gathered ’round the radio for a fireside chat with FDR or hunkered down, listening to the latest war news together. But by the end of the 1940s, radio’s format was usurped by television. Left without its programming (who would want to hear Amos and Andy when you could see them?), radio reverted to its original format of platters ’n’ chatter.
This all-music format catered to the young. Teenagers who didn’t want to sit around the new box with pictures in the living room headed off to their bedrooms—to the radio on the dresser that was just for them. Elvis Presley invaded the airwaves in 1956-57 with his battery of hits (“Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Jailhouse Rock”) that turned the music industry upside down and sent record executives scurrying to find newer and greasier Elvises. Radio was now the youth medium, and it loosened the belt on our culture.
America became mobile in the 1950s. Train travel was dying, mostly due to the post office giving its mail contracts to airlines, but personal travel in the family car kept us on the road.Thus was a revolution in love born. Teenagers had always done the courting dance under the gaze of parents; now, the car freed them from stolen kisses in the parlor and took them to the drive-in movie theater, the Tastee Freeze or even Lovers’ Lane.
Radio and the automobile presented America in the late 1950s with a volatile cultural mix. The Greatest Generation was defined by its times, but the Baby Boomers, born into an era of affluence and peace (Cold War be damned), had choices. They were free to define themselves in a way no other generation had before. Kerouac spoke to this in his electric prose: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles.”
With the sublime, of course, came the ridiculous. Sophisticated advertising agencies targeted the modest disposable income of the teenager who, in turn, grasped at every new experience. Music, books, television shows and films were all aimed at this youth audience, giving us, for good or ill, Gidget, the idealized surfer girl, and the standard Ricky Nelson rock tune at the end of Ozzie and Harriet. Nearly simultaneous with On the Road’s publication was the debut of American Bandstand, a successful effort to lure teens into the marketplace disguised as a daily after-school program that the kids could watch before dad came home.
The generation that rose from the tail end of the 1950s and carried itself through the ’60s may be the first to grow up believing itself to be relevant without having to earn its place at the table. It’s been a contradictory generation: Though mired in selfishness, it’s also shown lightning strikes of altruism. For all of their prolific faults, the Baby Boomers set a standard for youth that young people today often find daunting. They marched against the Vietnam War, fought for civil rights and danced to great music. Did it all rise from that need to move, to see America in its splendor and its squalor in that shiny car in the night?
“We don’t have a Woodstock,” one of my young students lamented recently.
“Don’t wait for a Woodstock,” I told him. “Make your own.”
Go find it…explore…keep on the move.
Hit the road, Jack. It’s the American way.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.